National Studies in Classical Antiquity

Original Source

Last updated February 22, 1999



Created by

John Hilton
Department of Classics
University of Natal
King George V Avenue
DURBAN, South Africa 4041
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Phone: +27 +31 260 1308

3000 Year Evolution of Writing

The following image illustrates the shift from Hittite cuneiform script (left) to Egyptian hieroglyphics (centre) to the Greek alphabet (right). The refinements made to the alphabet by the Greeks in the 8th century BC provided a revolutionary medium of communication. At the same time money came into use for the first time and naval technology improved dramatically. The culture of Greece was radically affected by these changes: democratic systems of government began to evolve and artistic and cultural expression rapidly diversified.
Thus the change from an oral to a literate culture that resulted from the invention of writing is just as complex an event as the present communications revolution and comparably significant for the development of human society.

Image showing transformation from
Hittite cuneiform script to Egyptian hieroglyphics, to the Greek alphabet
Castells rehearses the argument that the invention of the alphabet brought about a revolution in communication that laid the foundation for the accumulation of information in later times:

"Around 700 BC a major invention took place in Greece: the alphabet. This conceptual technology, it has been argued by leading classics scholars such as Havelock, was the foundation for the development of Western philosophy and science as we know it today. It made it possible to bridge the gap from spoken tongue to language, thus separating the spoken from the speaker, and making possible conceptual discourse. This historical turning point was prepared for by about 3,000 years of evolution in oral tradition and nonalphabetic communication, until Greek society reached what Havelock calls a new state of mind, the...
alphabetic mind

...that prompted the qualitative transformation of human communication (Eric A. Havelock).
Widespread literacy did not occur until many centuries later, after the invention and diffusion of the
printing press and the manufacturing of paper.
Yet it was the alphabet that, in the West, provided the mental infrastructure for cumulative, knowledge-based communication. However, the new alphabetic order, while allowing rational discourse, separated written communication from the audiovisual system of symbols and perceptions, so critical for the full-fledged expression of the human mind.

By implicitly and explicitly establishing a social hierarchy between literate culture and audiovisual expression, the price paid for the foundation of human practice in the written discourse was to relegate the world of sounds and images to the backstage of the arts, dealing with the private domain of emotions and with the public world of liturgy. Of course, audiovisual culture took an historical revenge in the twentieth century, first with film and radio, then with television, overwhelming the influence of written communication in the hearts and souls of most people. Indeed, this tension between noble, alphabetic communication and sensorial, nonreflective communication underlies the intellectuals' frustration against the influence of television that still dominates the social critique of mass media (Postman 1985)." (Castells 1996: 326f.)
The development of the individual letters of the alphabet from North Semitic to Modern capitals can be seen in the following table:

table showing evolution of alphabet
characters (78929 bytes)

Reading on the Alphabet

David Diringer, The Alphabet: 2 Vols. (London 19683).
David Diringer, Writing (London 1962).

Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963).

Eric A. Havelock, The literate revolution in Greece and its cultural consequences (Princeton, N.J., 1982).

J.T. Hooker (ed.), Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet (London 1990).


The Greek alphabet, by way of contrast, is here introduced, when it impinges on the Greek scene, as a piece of explosive technology, revolutionary in its effects on human culture, in a way not precisely shared by any other invention. Uniqueness is claimed for it in the fact that, while emerging from a process of experimentation which covered perhaps three previous millennia, it constituted the terminus of the process. Once invented, it supplied the complete answer to a problem, and there has never been need to reinvent it.
The Roman and Cyrillic variants are just that, and no more. The problem had been to devise a system of 'shapes' (as the Greeks properly called them) of required small sizes, with maximum economy, (so far, the Phoenician achievement) such as would, despite the economy, when seen (or as we say, 'read') in endless variety of linear arrangements automatically trigger an acoustic memory of the complete spoken speech indexed by the shapes. The Greek device, because of its success in solving the last stage of the problem, brought into existence what we call 'literature' in the modern, i.e. postalphabetic. It can even be argued that the device furnished a necessary conceptual foundation on which to build the structures of the modern sciences and philosophies.